The state of the state depends on which official is speaking

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Gov.. Phil Bryant used flash cards during the Mississippi Economic Council's Hobnob to emphasize economic progress in the state.

Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

Gov. Phil Bryant used flash cards during the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob to emphasize economic progress in the state.

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann forcefully countered Gov. Phil Bryant’s declaration that the presidential election is rigged, saying on Wednesday that the integrity of the election in Mississippi will be protected.

During an interview with a radio host on Tuesday, Bryant had echoed comments by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump saying that he thought the presidential election process is unfairly structured. Hosemann shot down those comments during his appearance at the Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob event in Jackson.

“I want to make one thing abundantly clear. Mississippi’s election is not going to be rigged,” Hosemann said. “There are about 7,000 voting machines here. And regardless of what you hear on Fox or the others, the Russians don’t control them.”

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann speaks at Mississippi Economic Council's Hobnob event Wednesday.

Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann speaks at Mississippi Economic Council’s Hobnob event Wednesday.

Hosemann was one of eight statewide elected officials who spoke at the gathering of hundreds of business and political leaders at the Mississippi Coliseum on Wednesday. Others were Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Attorney General Jim Hood, Treasurer Lynn Fitch, Auditor Stacey Pickering, and Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Seven of speakers were Republicans, but even within the same party, opinions varied widely, ranging from optimistic views about the state of agriculture to an acknowledgment that Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country.

When it came his time to speak, Bryant touted the state’s recent corporate hauls, including Continental Tire plant in Hinds County, ABB in Senatobia and Raytheon, which will build fighter jet training systems in Meridian, as announced this week.

He applauded Reeves and Gunn for their efforts to bolster educational standards in the state and bring in New Jersey-based EdBuild to reassess the public schools funding formula.

“Have we got challenges in Mississippi? Absolutely,” Bryant said to the business leaders. “We know the budget can be a challenge at times. We know that here with the crime that occurs we’re trying so hard to deter. We understand our children, especially in the foster care system, need all the time and help they can get. But we’re making great strides, and I want to thank you for what you’re doing for the state.”

Scott Waller, vice president of the Mississippi Economic Council, introduced Reeves, praising the work he has done to eradicate the state’s corporate franchise tax, which he called “a tax that is a penalty on your success.”

Reeves echoed this sentiment, explaining that jobs won’t come to a state with high taxes.

“I believe that our No. 1 priority in state government is job creation, to bring better and high paying jobs to our state,” Reeves said. “But I also believe and I have a core political belief that government doesn’t create jobs. Our goal is to create an environment to encourage you to create jobs. …  If the cost of doing business goes up, being competitive goes down.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at MEC's Hobnob 2016.

Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves speaks at MEC’s Hobnob 2016.

Reeves also praised Mississippi’s progress with education reform but stressed that the state needs to do more for public schools. This starts, he said, in the classroom.

“When we increase funding we do it for things like a teacher pay raise, so that a starting teacher makes $34,000 a year, which puts us in the top two or three in the Southeastern region. You don’t get to read about the things that are going well, but when it comes to public education in Mississippi we’re doing well,” Reeves said.

On the whole, Reeves presented a sunny outlook on Mississippi’s economic future.

“When you raise the level of expectations, the Mississippians rise up and meet those expectations. We here in Mississippi need to spend a lot less time apologizing and a lot more time bragging on the successes that are going on here.”

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn criticized the state's formula for funding education at Hobnob.

Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn criticized the state’s formula for funding education at Hobnob.

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn harshly criticized the state’s public education system.

“Antiquated. Confusing. Inefficient. Unreliable. Unpredictable. What do these words describe? They describe the Mississippi Adequate Education Program,” Gunn said taking the stage. “This program has failed because it allows spending on education to be abused.”

Gunn lauded the legislature’s moves to fund education, but called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program a poor solution to the funding of Mississippi’s education program.

“We want to see results,” Gunn said. “We want a better formula.”

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch focused on higher education, speaking about her efforts to boost college savings and financial education programs.

In one year, Fitch said, enrollments in college savings programs have doubled. To help get the college savings message out, Fitch introduced Echo, a mockingbird mascot, last month. Echo joined Fitch on stage, garnering some applause.

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch is joined by Echo the Mockingbird at 2016 Hobnob.

Sereena Henderson, Mississippi Today

State Treasurer Lynn Fitch is joined by Echo the Mockingbird at 2016 Hobnob.

“When that person invests in a child or grandchild, they’re seven times more likely to further their education,” Fitch said. “That’s a game changer to have people investing.”

Fitch also touted her financial education programs. In two years, Fitch said, 48,000 young people have received some type of financial education in 360 schools in 71 counties.

“These young people are confident and are going to college because they know how to pay for it,” she said. “In states where education is required, credit scores are going up. We’re going to continue to help with financial education.”

Attorney General Jim Hood, the lone Democrat statewide elected official, came to the podium swinging, criticizing state leadership for not getting the MEC’s push for greater highway funding passed. Hood connected this to the Legislature’s push for “social issues” like HB 1523, the religious freedom bill that came to the Legislature during the session.

Attorney General Jim Hood speaks at Hobnob 2016.

Sereena Henderson | Mississippi Today

Attorney General Jim Hood speaks at Hobnob 2016.

“When they pass these social issues and we lose,” Hood said, “guess who pays the other side’s lawyer fees? We do.”

Hood looked to expansion of transportation infrastructure as both a start for getting people working and encouraging the settlement of businesses in the state.

“(Highways) get our economy going,” Hood said. “We don’t have our revenue up. When we are out there building highways we’ve got people swinging hammers. Working people that are making money. Those workers can buy fuel, and those workers can buy things. That helps the economy.”

The prospect of voter fraud aside, Hosemann focused on how his office’s online resources have helped attract and retain business in Mississippi. Hosemann touted his website, Y’all Business, which aggregated business information from all 82 Mississippi counties so current and potential businesses have information they need.

Cindy Hyde-Smith, commissioner of agriculture and commerce, discussed recent moves the state has made to support Mississippi farmers. Hyde-Smith said that the state is working to open up markets with China for Mississippi’s poultry industry, which is the state’s No. 1 export.

Hyde-Smith said she was ready to explore opening Cuba as a market for Mississippi’s agricultural exports.

“One thing is for sure, we will eat everyday,” Hyde-Smith said, “and we want that safe affordable food on our table.”

State Auditor Stacey Pickering followed Hyde-Smith, dashing through several of his office’s victories, such as the this week’s arrest of a New Albany resident who had embezzled $300,000 from the city.

“As you’ve heard time and time again, Mississippi is in the Top 10 states in enforcing our corruption laws. We take right vs. wrong very seriously in Mississippi,” Pickering said.

But Pickering’s main focus fell on the $104 million dollars in federal grants that he said were being misspent by state agencies.

“It’s not embezzled, it’s not stolen, it’s just they didn’t follow the rules of spending the federal dollars,” Pickering said.

The state has hired 15 new auditors to address both fraud and what Pickering deemed the “incompetence” that has put the $104 million dollars at risk.

“One hundred and four million dollars can go a long way in public education in Mississippi. It would go a long way in public safety, it would go a long way towards our roads and bridges. … Our commitment to you is not just to root out corruption, the embezzlement and the fees, but also to work on the incompetence, the misappropriation, the mismanagement that has cost our state dearly,” Pickering said.